Better sorting standards needed to cut trash

Technology can help reduce the burden on garbage collectors, but to tackle the root cause of bulging landfills in our city's environs.

Shanghai is waging a war against its trash problem.

As the city, now with a population of around 24 million, fights to cut the refuse, it is also experimenting with a variety of measures to make garbage sorting a more efficient process.

The biggest headache for the public sanitation authority now is that much household waste goes unsorted, although it is supposed to go into specific bins.

Sanitation workers often have to remove recyclable and inflammable items from garbage bags, resulting in a mess and wasting time.

As with many sectors that have been transformed by high-tech, technology has again played a role in obliging residents to sort their household waste.

For example, new smart bins have recently been deployed to the Tianlin area in Xuhui District to deal with garbage disposal without separation beforehand. Residents open the bins by scanning the electronic keys to their apartment buildings, thereby identifying themselves.

The chips inside can easily track down those who flout sorting standards and discard, for example, perishables into the bin meant for scrap paper.

In the past, vigilantes literally had to watch over the bins to ensure compliance.

The new system has reportedly been very effective in preventing violations by shaming offenders.

Years ago when I lived in Hamburg, Germany, I was particularly amazed by the garbage-recycling machine in every supermarket. It scans, “swallows” empty bottles and cans, and spews out coins or a coupon that can be used at the cashier.

The machine is an important part of the recycling business because German laws stipulate that vendors charge an extra fee — normally 25 euro cents (US$0.30) — on bottled or canned drinks.

To my delight, I read in the press lately that an equivalent of the bottle recycler is now available in Beijing. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we see it in Shanghai.

Technology can help reduce the burden on garbage collectors. But to tackle the root cause of bulging landfills in our city, we have to make garbage sorting not just compulsory, but also more nuanced. By nuanced I mean more attention to details in making regulations. Our neighbor Japan is a pioneer in this regard.

Jiefang Daily commented in an editorial on June 19 that Japan doesn’t need the same high-tech infrastructure in China to dispose of the garbage.

What they have is a highly complicated system of sorting standards. For instance, the category “used paper” comprises five or six sub-categories, including newspapers, ordinary paper, cardboard boxes and so on.

And Japanese citizens all stick to the regulations, sorting the trash as per the official standards. The author of the editorial, Meng Qunshu, argued that in comparison to the Japanese experience, what we lack is not advanced equipment, but proper ideas and management.

Neat categorization

Well said. But the Japanese affection for neat categorization isn’t something inherent.

According to another piece carried by the Jiefang Daily, Japanese citizens also tended to discard garbage as they pleased in the early 1990s.

They gradually got into the habit of sorting garbage due both to the rigor of the new laws and the peer pressure from increasingly environmentally minded fellow citizens.

In Tokyo, the authority even issued a “dictionary” offering guidelines on how to separate 1,500 plus kind of used items. Moreover, garbage pickup is scheduled for certain days and those who fail to properly sort the trash will have to keep it for another week or so.

Violations of the rules risk being frowned upon by neighbors, which is a fate worse than fines in a highly self-disciplined society like Japan.

We cannot expect residents in Shanghai to start viewing garbage sorting as a social obligation overnight. Enhancing individual awareness of a good cause is necessary, but it takes time.

On the government’s part, it has the responsibility to make more stringent rules and enforce them.

More detailed categorization of garbage should be created to save the time for “secondary sorting,” meaning the practice of manually sifting through piles of trash to separate solid and liquid waste.

Garbage sorting entails leadership by example. Fortunately, we’ve seen some leadership demonstrated by our officials.

Jiefang Daily reported that some government agencies in Shanghai have employed mechanisms to monitor the behavior of their own employees in complying with the garbage sorting rules.

This is a good start, and stories like these signal something significant: With a bit of resolve and technology, mounds of unsorted refuse can be removed, however big they are.

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